Friday, January 4, 2019

Finnis on capital punishment (Updated)

John Finnis holds that the Catholic Church could reverse her traditional teaching that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle.  I criticized his position in the course of an exchange at Public Discourse several months ago.  Last month Finnis replied in an article at Public Discourse.  Today I respond to Finnis’s reply in an article at Catholic World Report.

Meanwhile, at Denver Journal, Ben Crenshaw kindly reviews By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.  From the review:

Feser and Bessette should be commended for writing the most exhaustive and convincing defense of the death penalty to date.  There is nothing of import that is left out.  There is no abolitionist argument that is not addressed and refuted.  And there is no flimsy cultural cliché that survives the impeccable logic and weight of evidence that the authors marshal.  For those contending for capital punishment as a just and humane aspect of our criminal justice system, Feser and Bessette’s book will be of indispensable aid

End quote.  Crenshaw writes from a Protestant perspective, and his main criticism is that in the chapter on the theology of capital punishment, “intra-Catholic doctrinal debates” are treated at much greater length than scriptural passages are.  

I agree that this is regrettable, but unfortunately, it was also necessary.  It would not have been necessary if the book had been written at any time before about 30 years ago.  But the amount of sophistry on this subject that has been pouring forth from Catholic churchmen and writers in recent years is unprecedented in Church history, and demanded a lengthy response.  Finnis’s latest article is more of the same, as I show in my reply.

UPDATE 1/6: Theologian Christian Washburn has an essay in the latest issue of Logos critiquing the NNLT position on capital punishment.  Also, in an article recently reprinted in The Wanderer, Fr. George Welzbacher addresses some problems with the translation of the recent revision to the Catechism.


  1. The pope has already spoken out on this, Ed.
    "Roma locuta est. Causa finita est."

    1. Hence the confusion, since Rome has spoken more than once on the matter, with not much consistency in the answer as of late.


      There is no inconsistency at all.

    3. So, does this mean that swimming across the Bosphorus is now an option?

    4. As is made clear by Dr. Feser's treatment of all of this, on accepted orthodox Catholic grounds it's a long way from this even to the unfolding of a red-yellow umbrella, so why would one bring up Phanar at all?

      Also, St. George's Cathedral is on the European side of the strait, as is, say, the entirety of Moscow.. So the Bosphorus theological swimming metaphor doesn't seem to work in the pro-Orthodox case... Unless the option discussed is converting to Islam, of course.

    5. No inconsistency at all? Then I suppose you (and maybe Crux) must regard JPII and B16 as having been either hopelessly confused or committing doctrinal error when they each clarified (Ratzinger being the point man in both instances) that the DP was not intrinsically immoral, i.e., that good Catholics could support it.

    6. I don't know why my profile suddenly says Unknown. I don't hide when I post. Probably something I did.

    7. loooool, indeed, the pope has spoken;
      Pope Pius XII, The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment, 1952:
      "Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live."
      You don't understand anything about Catholic theology and ajthentia development of doctrine if you think Pope Francis can contradict his predecessors in such a way.

    8. >"Roma causa est. Causa finita est."

      I am going to bet that is a poor paraphrase of what St. Augustine said. It has nothing to do with papal supremacy

    9. ^whoops I said causa in the first sentence. It should be locuta.

  2. I pray the Holy Spirit guides the next Pope to formally and authoritatively anathematize those who deny the legitimacy of Capital Punishment in principle. I think too much theological fruit is wasted on speculating whether CP could be considered immoral. I obviously encourage Dr. Feser in upholding the truth, but he really should not need to put in so much effort to do so. I pray that the next Pope writes so clearly and intently on the matter that only schismatics could doubt the legitimacy in principle of Capital Punishment.

    Of course, in light of the that, I pray the next Pope also stresses the role and importance of mercy as juxtaposed to justice. In fact, without justice, there can be no mercy.

    1. Me too. But I have no hope (other than truly stupendous miraculous intervention) that it will happen. As I understand it, when the next round of cardinals is established, Francis will have appointed over half of the voting members of the college of cardinals. Or least very close to it. And he seems to be VERY willing to pick choices who think just like him (unlike his 2 immediate predecessors). Consider Cardinal Nuthead of Chicago.

      I would actually wish for the next pope to simply abolish every teaching document of Francis's from the rolls of church teaching - to just say "we are removing them." I think that would be the easiest step - though of course an explicit declaration that the DP is not intrinsically immoral would be welcome as well. But even there, I fear that's not enough. Not only did Francis confuse things, so did JPII, and we need to roll back the damage from 26 years of confused teachings. For instance, when JPII said "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor", he confused matters, in that it was not traditional Church teaching that the ONLY time the state may use the DP is when it is necessary in order to protect human lives from the aggressor. He mistakenly included the double statement, which makes it LOOK like he is saying that the latter is "traditional" when only the former was (that "the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty") is the traditional teaching.

  3. >The pope has already spoken out on this, Ed.
    "Roma locuta est. Causa finita est."

    The Problem is the Pope hasn't spoken clearly on it.

    WTF does "inadmissible" mean? Either say it is "intrinsically" evil (& be openly heretical) or say it is not (& you can continue to maximally oppose the DP).

    The Pope can settle the matter. The Problem is he is not protect by the Holy Spirit from causing confusion.

    I am pro-Death penalty but I would consent to see it abolished worldwide as long as the Pope clarifies the issue correctly.

  4. Dear Dr. Feser, sorry to say, but you are "inherently wrong" in dealing with Capital Punishment...
    I also don't like the way you treat Dr. Finnis in your responses...

  5. Interesting that here and at CWR, Finnis's defenders have nothing to offer but sheer assertion and foot-stomping.

    1. Dr. Feser,

      Have you written on why you think some people who oppose Capital Punishment are so dismissive or aggressive towards the other side? It is certainly not a daughter of lust like with abortion and birth control.

      I understand those who politely disagree on the matter, but it seems strange when some (certainly not all) people who put such emphasis on mercy are incapable of a charitable discussion.

      I would love to hear your speculation on why that is the case.

    2. Hello Scott,

      Take a look at my posts on "The voluntarist personality," "Violence in word and action," and "Wrath and its daughters." As I explain in the first post, it is no accident that those given to constant chatter about love and mercy are also so nasty and irrational in their dealings with others. Both tendencies are byproducts of a personality type that is highly willful and/or emotional and, accordingly, relatively weak in intellect.

      By the way, I'm not attributing this personality type to NNLT people, specifically. On the contrary, NNLT defenders are usually not nasty or ad hominem, but instead try to give arguments in defense of their claim that CP is intrinsically wrong. To be sure, the arguments are always very bad, but at least they do try to give them.

      The problem with the NNLT folks on this issue, I would say, is that they think they are forced into the conclusion that CP is intrinsically evil by the fundamental premises of their theory. To allow that CP might be legitimate thus seems to entail giving up the NNLT itself.

      I think that they should indeed just give it up, because the NNLT is bad in any case for a number of independent reasons. But if they don't want to do that, then they should try to find a way to make NNLT compatible with CP. Finnis himself once took that approach, as it happens, but eventually gave it up and adopted the view that CP is intrinsically evil. But he only ends up having to tie himself in even more knots. I submit that it would be much easier to try to find a way to reconcile NNLT with CP than it is to reconcile the view that CP is intrinsically evil with Catholicism.

    3. Feser! I wanted to bring this to your attention in case you weren't already aware of it: "Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live." - Pope Pius XII, The Moral Limits Of Medical Research And Treatment, 1952


  6. So, if the ProgCath Bureau Dwellers and Professional Sensitives are ultimately, if dismally, correct in that "The Truth the same yesterday, today and tomorrow" turns out to mean no more than that "The 'truth' is what me and my homies say it is today", then why would any man with normal reasoning abilities and sensory powers want to continue to pretend that the operations of these not especially bright, and very obvious manipulators, somehow remain invisible behind that flimsy curtain; as they thunder-juggle those authority levers and dials.

    Thanks Pope. I guess we're really not in Kansas anymore.

  7. Well, Ed, as far as personality types go, the nastiest and most irrational people I have encountered in a long life, living in many states and working a variety of white and blue collar jobs, have been Christians.

    1. That may be because...... most of the people you've met are Christian.

    2. That is interesting. Having worked in multiple states and on three continents, I have always found the nastiest people to be atheists and agnostics. Some famous atheists include Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong.

  8. This is the definitive critique of Dr. Feser's book.

    1. To which this was the definitive rejoinder:

      Seriously, why do people waste time with this childish "nyah nyah you're wrong" stuff? How about an actual reasoned reply to the arguments?

    2. They are naughty people. The Sad thing is they can be as near maximally against the DP as they want but they need to know how to do it correctly. Claiming the DP is intrinsically evil is not the correct way to do it. Otherwise God himself commanded evil in Holy Writ.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Alan Jacobs commentary on Hart's rhetorically oriented style of argumentation is an interesting aside to this topic.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Didymus, pretending that those actually are what amounts to Dr. Feser's reasones responses is just ridiculous.

    7. Ah, I'm sorry I got my muddled all my responses.

      Carry on.

  9. One obvious problem with this teaching of Pope Francis is no matter how extreme his language Pope Benedict XVI (who is also against the DP and called for it's worldwide abolition) taught Catholics can be in opposition to the Pope on the DP in a manner they are absolutely forbidden to be in terms of Abortion and Euthanasia. Pope Francis hasn't bothered to say explicitly that teaching is abrogated.

    He is ambiguous here and is causing confusion so if I continue to be pro-death penalty then how am I disloyal for following Pope Benedict here?

    Let the Holy Father be as anti-DP as he judges fit. I will disagree with him like I now diagree with Molinism. Banez RULEZ!

    Peace! Benyachov out!

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I can't stand the "Protestant perspective." Here is a verbal simulacrum of the "Protestant perspective."

    I've mastered the inside of the Bible. Absolutely nothing external to that inside can ever matter. External facts related to the Bible can't matter, because they're not in the Bible. How Christians decided which books are in the Bible doesn't matter, it's not in the Bible. What the apostles taught about the Bible can't matter, because it's not in the Bible. The relation of the Bible to science and reality can't matter, it isn't in the Bible. The relation of the story I spun to Catholics about Mary being goddess worship to reality can't matter because that's not in the Bible.

  12. In order to understand the moral status of the death penalty, it is helpful to consider the moral justification for other situations that are structurally similar. For example, when Moses permitted divorce it was not because he thought divorce was a good thing. Divorce is an evil but it is morally permissible when it prevents significantly greater evils and there are no other options available. Moses did nothing wrong in permitting divorce because he was responsible for defending the common good and to prohibit divorce would have done far greater damage to the social order.

    It should be noted that this is not a case of claiming that the end justifies the means. When faced with an unavoidable choice between two evils, the only rational and therefore moral choice is to choose the lesser evil.

    In cases where the death penalty is the only rational choice, it ought to be permitted. Finnis claims that the dignity of the human person does not allow for anyone to ever intentionally kill another person. But that claim assumes that God has not given the authority to take a life to those whom he has given the responsibility to defend the common good when that is the only available course of action. I would argue that God does not give someone the responsibility to defend the common good and at the same time deny that person the authority to do what is necessary to defend the common good.

    Finnis does not address this most crucial point, Therefore I conclude that his argument is incomplete and his conclusions unjustified.

  13. The stuff about the Latin is very interesting, especially regarding the *indicative* English rendering when the Latin word is in the *subjunctive*. Idk Latin at all, but that analysis seems very important considering the difference it makes in the translation.

    1. I do know a little bit of Latin, and (what is more important) how to look up the bits I don't know. The complaint about the subjunctive appears to be correct, as well as the other complaints about the differing lexical implications in English vs. Latin and the fact that "quippe quae" ought to be rendered "to the extent that," or "provided that" or "inasmuch as," but definitely not "because."

      As a result, we should take the new text in the Catechism to say something like: "...the death penalty is not permissible for use to the extent that it could be an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

      Which is very different in its implications from the current, bad English translation ("...the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person")!

      (Note: Against my own preference, I've indulged in a bit of dynamic translation by saying "is not permissible for use" instead of simply "is not permissible" or "is impermissible" or "is inadmissible." This is because I'm trusting Fr. George Welzbacher's assertion, which I am not enough of a Latinist to confirm, that the Latin "non posse admitti" is completely ambiguous about whether capital punishment is inadmissible for reasons extrinsic to the nature of capital punishment, or for reasons intrinsic to it. If the reasons are intrinsic, its use is always bad because it is always bad. But if the reasons are extrinsic (which seems supported by the subjunctive later in the same sentence) then it is not necessarily bad, save in reference to when and where it is used. Hence my addition of the words "for use" which have no word-for-word justification in the Latin.)

      Parsing this improved, more-accurate translation, it seems to me that....

      (a.) The last 3 popes' opposition to capital punishment is once again shown to be prudential, not a change of dogma;

      (b.) The new wording in the Catechism does, in fact, prudentially insist on the non-use of capital punishment being the norm; but,

      (c.) The new wording also provides the possibility of exceptions to the norm by asserting that capital punishment ought not be used to the extent that it could be an attack on the dignity, etc. This allows for cases where the use of capital punishment plainly isn't such an attack. And since the prohibition on the use of capital punishment is present only to the extent that it constitutes an attack-on-dignity, its use is permissible in those cases where it isn't such an attack.

      (d.) However, the new wording, by using the subjunctive, probably requires us to be certain that we're not attacking human dignity before permitting the use of capital punishment in any given instance.

      The translation "to the extent that it could be" seems to be telling us, "You don't have to be certain you're attacking human dignity before ruling out capital punishment.

      On the contrary, to the extent that you might be attacking human dignity, recourse to capital punishment becomes impermissible." For such prudential calculations, it seems that the death penalty is assumed guilty until proven innocent.

      At any rate, I think we have two broad-spectrum takeaways from the analysis:

      1. The change to the Catechism reaffirms, rather than altering, the assertion of traditionalist Catholics that opposition to the death penalty is prudential not dogmatic.

      2. You can't trust English translations of the Vatican's Italian and Latin. They err frequently in important matters, and when they err, it is consistently in favor of lefty agenda-items over and against traditional Catholic teaching. Caveat lector!

    2. Original English Translation:

      "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person"

      Your translation:
      "the death penalty is not permissible for use to the extent that it could be an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

      The French is as follows:

      "La peine de mort est toujours inadmissible parce qu’elle lèse l’inviolabilité et la dignité de la personne."

      Or in English:
      "The death penalty is always inadmissible it violates the inviolability and dignity of the person."

      Wow - even stronger in French.

      Can anyone point me to the Latin original?


    3. Can you guys please revisit the issue of which version is normative? Usually Latin is, but the Pope has done "official" versions in Italian at times. I would hesitate to come to definitive conclusions on this until we know if the Latin text is the official version.

      Latin and the fact that "quippe quae" ought to be rendered "to the extent that," or "provided that" or "inasmuch as," but definitely not "because."

      I believe I have seen quippe quae translated as "for" in the sense of "for which reason", (i.e. a lot like "because") and I think it plausible (in the alternative, here) that in this case its intended sense is more like "inasmuch as" than "to the extent that". If this correct, "inasmuch as" is a claim, though not a strong, direct one, about a state of affairs that holds, not a conditional like "to the extent that". It would be a WEAK claim about a state of affairs that holds (at least that's how it comes off in English), so it still has a kind of carry-over hint of the subjunctive possibility rather than a definitive and absolute assertion that IT IS.

      I am not a Latin scholar, but I would (strongly) question whether the import of the Latin "repugnet" in the subjunctive combined with one version of "quippe quae" as "insofar as" is that it is supposed to be taken as "You don't have to be certain you're attacking human dignity before ruling out capital punishment." When the "repugnet" is is LESS determinative than "is an attack on", the quippe quae isn't supposed to create a MORE STRINGENT prohibition than would occur with "when it is an attack on." I don't think that's how they work together. If the indicative mood expression would be "it is not allowed, given that is an attack on the dignity of human life", the subjunctive and the quippe quae weakens it to a softer, less definitive prohibition: it is not possible to admit the DP to the extent that it may be an attack on human dignity.

      Not that it really matters all that much: "attack on human dignity" is a catch-all nonsense phrase - because it has been used to mean everything, it now means nothing at all. There is no longer a meaning for it that can save the sentence to be a valid and useful working prohibition: Capital punishment properly handled IS NOT an attack on human dignity, and its improper use has already been condemned by many prior and more clear and certain teachings.

    4. By the way, guys, I have a procedural question about the "official" version: Francis here had the Catechism quote his speech - which was in Italian. Now, maybe the the rest of the text's "official" version is in Latin: does the Latin version of what he said in Italian override the Italian original? Given that (according to Cardinal Ratzinger at the time the Catechism was issued, the texts which the Catechism quotes carry with them only the authority they had in their original source?

      That is to say, if Francis's original was a speech, and it was in Italian, is it even possible for a Latinized version to carry more weight than his original in Italian carried to begin with? Seems to me that we might need to rely on the Italian principally for the money quote "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person".

    5. In reply to Daniel: The Latin (in reply to Daniel, who asked) is: "...poenam capitalem non posse admitti quippe quae repugnet inviolabili humanae dignitati."

      (But apparently there's some question about whether the Latin really is the official version. Really? After centuries of norms? Sigh. I am positively aching for a return to what feels like normalcy, but apparently we've been cursed to "live in interesting times.")

      In reply to Tony: I don't know whether the publishing of the Latin might automatically override the Italian, making the Latin text the official text. I would certainly expect Latin to be the official text in, say, canon law.

      If the official is the Italian, then all this parsing of the Latin probably is moot and someone at The Wanderer ought to point this out to Fr. George Welzbacher.

    6. Certainly the "editio typica" issued in 1997 was in Latin, and this is the normative version.

      I don't know if OTHER quotes borrowed for the Catechism that started in another language become "normalized" in the Latin of the editio typica. I imagine most of the quotes are of (a) the Vulgate, (b) the Fathers, (c) the Doctors, and (d) Council documents, and nearly all of (b), (c) and (d) were in Latin anyway, so it wouldn't really come up. One of the advantages of working in Latin as your working language of the Church, as Leo XIII and Pius X and XI required for forming priests, and which demands were wrongly ignored by seminaries.

      As an aside, if I were an American bishop with input on actually issuing a revised text in English for the US, I would simply refuse. I would put up every obstacle I could think of to issuing a new version of the CCC, including point blank refusal to sign an approval (somewhere there has to be a bishop with the authority to sign off on the publisher publishing it, and how he does it). The pope wants to change it? Fine, let him. Let him also come over here and pay for the publishing costs. Creative non-compliance. The CCC is already confusing on the DP, making it worse is not something we have to lend support to.

    7. Clearly the Latin text is the offical one as it is the offical published act of the Church.

      Also as I have pointed out in the past given the sentiments expressed in the text Quote"Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption."end quote then we are all one Neuclear War away from having the Death Penalty being restored. Since such an event would return us to the Dark Ages as it where.

  14. edit:

    "The death penalty is always inadmissible because it violates the inviolability and dignity of the person."

  15. Ed, you know I have always supported your position on the DP, and I have strongly defended your book on it. However, I have to say I don't think this feature of your defense against Finnis is fair:

    fine-grained nuances in an obscure sentence in one of Pope Pius XII’s little-known speeches

    It was a speech put into the AAS. Sorry, whether it is a much-cited source or not, it has equal basic standing with the OTHER Pius quote from 1954 that you use to prove he supports the vindictive purpose of punishment.

    Now, I loved your come-back that you were simply borrowing Brugger's quote on the 1957 speech, including his ellipses, it really leaves a lot of egg on Finnis' face. Especially if (as you claim) Finnis had "supervision" of Brugger's work - but I suspect that possibly Finnis' involvement was rather less than direct and specific oversight of details like this, and Finnis' input was exaggerated by Brugger. If it wasn't an exaggeration by Brugger, then having an endorsement by Finnis was actually a very bad scholarly error of judgment - you aren't supposed to tout your own work like that.

    1. Hi Tony, the point was that (a) the sentence itself is obscure in the sense that it is awkwardly phrased, its import is not entirely clear, etc. and (b) it was not put forward in a major teaching document but in a little-known address to a local group. Therefore, it is silly to look in such a place for evidence of a major reversal of teaching. I don't think it's at all unfair to point that out.

      Yes, minor addresses like this one are certainly theologically significant. But their significance is primarily that they serve as evidence that something is part of the longstanding, taken-for-granted teaching of the ordinary magisterium. They are not the place to look for major doctrinal clarifications or the like. That sort of thing tends to happen in a clear, explicit, and public way.

  16. John Finnis' thesis - that the state MAY use execution, but NOT as punishment per se, only in order to protect the safety of citizens - requires this extremely odd result: when the state executes a prisoner properly, because he is a threat to the safety of others, the state does not intend his death either as an end or as a means. Instead, the state merely intends the cessation of his being a threat. This is what enables the state to carry out the execution, like to when an attacked innocent victim kills the attacker to end the attack - it's not the death he intends, but stopping the attack.

    The first problem with this is that - as Pope Francis alluded to in 2015 - at the moment that the state kills the prisoner, the prisoner is not a direct and immediate threat to anyone. An execution is carried out on a prisoner who is unable to attack anyone - at that moment. He is immobilized. Therefore, it is NOT LIKE self-defense where you kill an attacker in the immediate need to end the attack. If you know about an attack before hand, with time before it commences, you are required to call the police, and get the state to intervene so that the attack never materializes as an actual immediate threat, you can't kill the man who in the future intends to attack you but has not put the plan into action yet. The police come and apprehend him. Yet executing a prisoner requires just this killing before-hand and there is a fundamental lack of equivalence.

    The much more (morally) serious problem is that it is impossible to explain killing the prisoner in terms of "ending the attack" (that never actually started) without using his death as either a means or an end. OF COURSE death is the means by which you preclude future attacks, it is nonsense to claim that "oh, no, we are just making it insurmountably difficult to carry out the attack he will otherwise decide to carry out, we aren't, you know, using his death to achieve that condition." Or, if that were a valid argument, then this would blow holes in ALL of the natural law arguments against abortion: "oh, no, I am not using the death of the fetus as a means or an end, I am just, you know, making the woman to be not-pregnant any more, that's all." The thinking required to re-write the execution as "not using death" is a form of insanity. It also turns the entirety of John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor on its head.

    Not to mention that it fails to conform to the treatment of 2000 years of Tradition.

    1. Capital punishment, the temporal punishment for homicide in the first degree, is executed through power of attorney of the condemned. To deny this is to deny the human dignity of the condemned as well as his power of attorney, his free will and freedom through which he committed his crime.
      Justice for the victim is a necessary component of civilization.
      Justice is not served when a baby-raping killer is allowed to enjoy his baby-raping murder in prison.
      Were the baby-raping killer truly contrite he would expire with grief over his baby-raping killing. There is nothing less.
      The sovereign personhood of the baby-raping murderer brings himself to Justice through power of attorney in his citizenship in the state.
      Mercy and compassion are reserved for contrite and repentant sinners. In this case the repentant baby-raping murderer has expired with grief over his sin-crime.
      Homicide in the first degree needs capital punishment in the first degree, the death penalty.

      The victim is denied due process and time to make peace with God. The victim must be vindicated. Retribution, deterrence and Justice must ensue.

  17. It involves, I argued, adoption of a new thesis, about the incompatibility between human intent precisely to kill a human person and God’s lordship over life and death. That thesis has, I believe, never until recently been differentiated out or distinguished from various nearby grounds for lethal action or for irreparable penal measures—grounds long and rightly judged legitimate by the Church.

    This is Finnis' thesis that like with slavery (differentiating between penal servitude and chattel slavery) there might be room for a differentiation that allows us to say it is always wrong to intend the death of a person.

    It's poppycock, of course. Romans 12 lays out the clear prohibition against taking vengeance:

    Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    But he then follows that up by the clear prescription to civil authorities to wield the punishment on God's behalf:

    But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

    The civil authority not only has permission to levy punishment, he is acting with God's own authority to do so. And Paul uses the "tools of the trade" of punishment to express it, but he only mentions ONE such tool, the sword. That is, he expresses the whole permitted range of punishments that fall within the scope of that delegated authority, by reference to the most extreme of the, the death penalty.

    In light of Genesis 9:6, and the passage in Deuteronomy 32:35 which Romans 12:19 revisits, the power of vengeance is properly understood as the power to make things right, or rectified again. It is essentially a positive power, even though in punishment it requires a negative as its means.

    So, no, there is no possible room for the Church to discover by differentiation that when we kill a prisoner who deserves death, we only do so to intend safety from his further depredations and we don't actually intend his death at all as vengeance on God's behalf. It would make Romans 13:4 nonsensical for Paul to focus on the retributive concept, to put it off limits to ordinary men, and then to explicitly put it into the hands of the civil authorities as God's delegates by reference to the sword, the most extreme of penal tools, and then declare that Paul didn't mean retribution when you use the sword, but only a twisted future self-defense. It's idiotic when you lay it out that way.

  18. Yes, God has lordship over life and death. God quite clearly delegated that authority to the state in Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:4, for expressly limited purposes.

  19. "Didymus on January 5, 2019 at 8:23 PM, says:

    Dr. Feser, you mean reasoned arguments like...

    'And indeed it is, as any good scholar of the New Testament or of late antiquity could tell him.

    And, really, one does not even need to be a scholar of ancient Judaism to know this.

    This is not open to debate; the evidence is clear and overwhelming.'

    It is perhaps easier for me as an Orthodox Christian than it is for a Catholic to dismiss Feser’s argument' ..."

    If some of Feser's most vehement and pettifogging critics were a decade or two older, they might have grown up in the era of free broadcast VHF TV. And if they grew up in an era of free VHF TV, they might have been exposed to one of the many local and regional broadcast stations or networks which ran weekday morning or afternoon, or Sunday afternoon Hollywood movies from the so-called 'Golden Era'. And if they had done so, they might have gained some familiarity with the common coin of American popular culture of the WWII era, and its tropes.

    And had they done so, they might know who Waldo Lydecker was, [the immediately preceding was in that vein] and how much they come off sounding like Waldo, in comparison to that annoying Feser with his silver shin bone.

    The parallel though only partial, is still unsettling. But not as unsettling as what so many superficially intellectual American men have become: Waldo Lydeckers

  20. Professor Finnis is presently the subject of a petition to have him removed as a teacher at Oxford. His crime? Affirming Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

    I hope Dr. Feser will come to his defence. This imperils all orthodox Christian academics.

    1. Anon, while I will defend Finnis in his attempt to state the Catholic teaching on homosexuality, I don't have any hope that he will survive this attack. Oxford - and indeed all of the officialdom of the British universities - are in effect anti-Catholic institutions. It is not in the least bit surprising that they would attempt to kick out a believing Catholic. What is surprising, really, is that they bothered to hire him in the first place - I am sure it must have been an oversight.

      I don't know if he had "tenure" over there, and if not he has little room from which to mount a defense. In the US, the notion of "tenure" is a slippery-slope series of varying steepness, in that each university defines it the way they want. In practice, universities can get rid of a professor they want to get rid of by eradicating the position itself which he fills - as a number of good professors at St. Thomas University discovered when the administration decided to close down a unit of the philosophy department. Tenure doesn't prevent that.

      And in any case, tenure these past 60 years or more has been based on a flawed understanding of "academic freedom" anyway.

      But aside from tenure: liberalism DOES NOT stand for true toleration of other beliefs. It stands for toleration of beliefs that depart from traditional morality and traditional Christianity, and it does not uphold the right to believe in Christianity and maintain it publicly. Liberalism is a pretense about toleration, it uses the concept as a weapon.

    2. You are quite right, Tony. I think a lot of people, especially those in the younger generation, have to come to see Liberalism as the ideological ruse that it always was. Now that liberals enjoy almost total cultural hegemony, the mask has slipped they are making clear that this was never about toleration. The advocacy of tolerance was only meant to provide cover for the left as it insinuated itself into all of major the institutions of society and gradually took them over from within. And now that is in power, the left has no problems with overt censorship, procedural casuistry, legal sanctions and even mob violence so long as it gets it way in the end.

      If traditionalists ever regain power, they must recognize that leftism cannot be tolerated or bargained with in any fashion, and they must return to the older standards which legitimized the use of legal and political power to keep it in check.

  21. Hello Edward Feser. I think, for a laugh, I will use the codename Anmo.

    Has anyone seen the endtimes lately? I've been seeing it, but it seems like every time I write about it people start dying and trying to delete or downvote my comments or something. I respect your highly advanced philosophical discussions, but mine is more like a Lord of the Rings movie transcribed from my brain.

    To me, Edward, you're probably the best philosopher of Catholicism. I truly understood what Catholicism is all about through your words. Still want to read some of your books.

    And now, if you'd please, a prayer. Remember that business with All Dogs go to Heaven on your blog? Well it's like that, but, with Catholics. We need more Deus Vult, Ed! We need a more reasonable world for the Anti-Monitor to gaze upon fondly! whoops.

    Anyway, see you later!

  22. As one who is otherwise inclined to agree with the perspective you defend on the matter, I would suggest that your tone and rhetoric of late leave much to be desired. I see far too many caricatures of “Finnis+NNLT” and far too little engagement of your interlocutor’s beliefs as actually expressed. Perhaps I am not your intended audience, but I would not have given your most recent piece the time of day except for the desire that your position prevails.

  23. I'm from the Tone Police. Dr. Feser has been cleared.

    1. Do not fall into the trap of looking at tone from the perspective of “justified given xyz”. Tone is just one element of effective and persuasive writing. As a rule, a tone that calls attention to itself above and beyond the content expressed is a characteristic of poor writing. Feser has lost sought of the fact that it is entirely possible to be both correct and utterly unpersuasive.

    2. Feser has lost sought of the fact that it is entirely possible to be both correct and utterly unpersuasive.

      Do you have a rational and constructive contribution to make, or do you just like to talk about your own feelings without saying anything that could possibly be useful to anyone else?

    3. If concern that argumentation be persuasive is neither rational nor constructive in your view, then indeed I have nothing further to offer here.

    4. Anon (and Brandon and Scott), I too noticed that Feser's tone in this reply to Finnis is somewhat harsher than is his usual to someone of Finnis' position in the overall debate: Finnis, whatever his faults and failings, has been polite and fairly restrained (in tone) in his remarks where he claims Feser has erred. This typically calls for similarly polite and restrained tone for comments in reply. Typically.

      Yet I also note that Finnis claims that Feser is wrong on every single one of the nine points he argues in the prior article:

      Edward Feser makes nine points on these and related issues. Though they all fail,

      whereas, some at least of Finnis' counterarguments are not only not very good, but a few of them are positively ill-conceived (such as his resort to arrant relativism in re-interpreting the Old Testament support of the DP in a way that is clearly contrary to the sense the Fathers gave it). I quite well understand why Feser would feel exasperated with such an attempt: for one thing, Finnis' resorting to "historical-critical research into the intentions of the authors" to relativize the both the OT and NT teaching is EXACTLY the sort of thing Finnis and all orthodox Catholics decry when the moral relativists try to re-interpret the Scriptures to get rid of Scriptural objections to contracepting. It looks no better there than when Finnis uses it to educe conclusions that would force the Fathers' conclusions to stand on their heads.

      For what it's worth, at this point in the game Finnis probably foresees that almost his entire life-work - i.e. the body of NNL - effectively hangs in the balance on Feser being fundamentally wrong on DP, and as a result he cannot "risk" Feser being right on even one argument that WOULD establish the moral licitness of the DP. He would then have a very strong incentive to come up with an answer (even a poor one) against every one of Feser's arguments - an incentive that might cloud his judgment on the logical worth of such arguments. (In fact, it is not at all certain that NNL as a whole MUST hang or fall on whether the DP is morally licit, given that some NNL authors have at one time or another proposed - perhaps tentatively - that the DP was licit, so possibly Finnis' perception is in error). But even if Finnis were (a) right that the DP is morally illicit, and (b) right that the Church is finally getting around to teaching that, it would not follow that the arguments so far brought to bear against Feser's theses (or in favor of the underlying position on the moral licitness of DP) are better _arguments_ than Feser's. In point of fact, so far as I have seen not a single attempt to relativize and re-interpret Gen. 9:6 is in the least plausible as a claimed better understanding of the DP than what all the Fathers and Doctors said about it. So, (at least for now), if the Church really were doctrinal saying that the intentional killing of a criminal in DP is morally illicit, she would have to be doing so while at the same time saying "and we don't currently know how that fits with Gen. 9:6." It would be, at the least, a very odd way of proceeding in doctrine.

  24. @ Professor Feser.

    Does Fr. Welzbacher's analysis of the offical Latin text kind of semi-undermine your criticism in that taken at face value the Latin Text better translated clearly is not at odds with Tradition?

    The collarary to this is your general criticisms more strictly applies to the formal wording of the English text.

    Your thoughts?

    PS Happy New Year guy.

    Jim Scott(aka Yachov Ben Yachov)


  25. If I may chime in, I think you’re right; critiques of the Latin and English translations do not bear on each other, since they are both translations of the original Italian and are equally but independently susceptible of being well or badly done. The same naturally applies to all the translations of the revision; and to all translations in principle with respect to their source text.

    That the original text was in fact in Italian is explicitly stated at the head of each of the translations appearing in the revision document published by the Holy See Press Office:

    as well as at the head of each of the translations of the Letter to the Bishops regarding the revision:

    As for problems with the English translation, Dr Feser wasn’t the only one having them; the Vatican translator was having them too. In the first sentence of paragraph 6 of the English translation of the Letter to the Bishops, he gives us the following rendering of a citation from the Pope:

    ‘… Pope Francis has reaffirmed that “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been.”

    Note the use of ‘unacceptable’ in relation to capital punishment.

    However, the original Italian reads as follows – and I translate:

    ‘… Pope Francis has reaffirmed that “the death penalty today is inadmissible, regardless of how serious a crime a person has been convicted of.”’

    The word used in the original text was ‘inadmissible’ (‘inammissibile’).

    So why did the translator at this point opt for ‘unacceptable’? I would suggest for the very reasons we’re having this debate: he was concerned a jurisprudential reading of ‘inadmissible’ would send English readers down the wrong path; and it did. The reason the reading isn’t a problem in Italian is that ‘inadmissible’ can be and often is used colloquially as an emphatic form of ‘unacceptable’. It didn’t take me long to find a recent reference to an Italian soccer official branding as ‘inadmissible’ the fact that offensive banners were sneaked into the stadium. He meant, ‘outrageous’, ‘completely unacceptable’. It’s true Italian also uses ‘inadmissible’ in a legal sense: ‘prove inammissibili’ > ‘inadmissible evidence’, but there is sufficient slippage between the two usages for the jurisprudential overtone not to dominate in the original text. The translator was concerned English readers didn’t have access to this slippage and was tempted to be circumspect; he was right. However, a policy decision must have been made at some point in the drafting of the translations for ‘inadmissible’ to be used uniformly, I’d say mostly for misguided reasons, and the English translation suffered the consequences.

    As for the Latin being the ‘normative’ text, for the reasons mentioned above, this cannot objectively be the case. The normative text is necessarily the source text – in this case Italian – since without it the revision information _doesn’t exist_. The only thing special about Latin is that practically no-one has a sufficient working grasp of it to be communicatively useful; including the bishops. That’s why the only language missing from the Letter to the Bishops regarding the revision is: Latin. The Vatican obviously thought it had better communicate business matters to them in a language they could understand – their own. The fact that Latin appears in the revision document proper, given that it is a translation, however good or bad, can at most mean it has traditional/ceremonial status (whether the Vatican recognizes it or not).

  26. As for the Latin being the ‘normative’ text, for the reasons mentioned above, this cannot objectively be the case.

    Sergius, while I feel inclined toward your take on this, I do not feel confident about it. I have this reservation: Given that the same individual person was ultimately responsible both for the original Italian, and for the later Latin version, he might have decided that he didn't want or prefer the ambiguity inherent in the Italian, and thus when he decided on the Latin he decided to reduce the expression to a more definite meaning. He is the one person who can with certainty declare from the Italian one meaning that was more intended than the other(s). If he then declares that the Latin text of the new 2267 is now the official or normative text, he would (presumably) mean for the more definite Latin to supercede the ambiguous Italian.

    One might wonder whether the Latin is indeed more definite: when I started looking up the meaning of "admitti" (present passive infinitive of admitto), the first word I saw was "urged", followed by "permitted". The first seems to (arguably) leave some wiggle room for "unacceptable" versus "outlawed", but when you take in the range of expressions for which "admitto" is used, it becomes obvious that when you link it with "non posse" you must mean, at the least, "not permitted" rather than "not desirable". The positive term, "admitto" is to allow, to permit, to grant admission into; the negative as "non posse" is the contradictory to that allowing: not permitted, not allowed.

    This makes somewhat more sense of what follows the expression: quippe quae repugnet inviolabili humanae dignitati. Either "for" or "insofar as" or "inasmuch as" or even the simple "as" ... it would be an attack on inviolable human dignity. (Unless I have forgotten my remote Latin teaching, both "inviolabili" and "humanae" together modify "dignity", and there is no term present for "person", nor is there any conjunctive "and", so translating the last phrase as "the inviolability and dignity of the person" is rather re-phrasing what is not actually present in the text.) While it is notionally possible to translate "quippe quae repugnet" as "to the extent that it would be an attack on", it would be slightly strange putting it so with the verb of "non posse admitti" wherein it "IS" not possible to admit the DP, rather than "WOULD BE" not possible, if it was meant to be only "to the extent" the DP would be an attack on... At least that's my sense of it: the pope is claiming that it IS NOT POSSIBLE TO ADMIT the DP, and what follows extends the position of JPII that the conditions are either "rare or even nonexistent" to simply "nonexistent", and thus "to the extent" would be deceptively conditional, kind of like making a conditional such as "we should obey God to the extent it is good for us." I think "inasmuch as" works better.

    As long as we are translating Latin, let's mention that Finnis account here

    Unlike an attacker (culpable or inculpable), an innocent—in the distinct sense of someone non-nocens [literally: not-harming], that is, someone not himself attacking, harming or threatening vital interests of another

    is somewhat misleading. The "literal" translation of "non-nocens" is not simply "not harming". "Nocens" has a lot of meanings, and when you look at the list, it starts with culpable and goes on with injurious, criminal, guilty, harmful, and bad. while it is possible to intend the word solely in the non-culpable "injurious" sense, that's a narrow reading and not necessarily the most likely. Finnis is tendentious here.

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. Thanks Tony. The reason I said the Latin translation cannot objectively be normative is because without the Italian source text – the textual material in which revision 2267 originally consists – there is no Latin translation or any other translation to discuss; including declaring any of them 'normative' or anything else. But once the translations do exist, they should convey the normativity of the source text for the non-Italian readers; that's the entire point of the translations. In the case of the English translation, it is the nature of the normativity that is being questioned – I would suggest for the reasons I laid out.

    ~ Sergio

  29. Does it really matter? "Hail Full of Grace" is a dynamic translation of the original written Greek (which if we believe many early fathers comes from a lost Aramaic or Hebrew original) of "Hail 'Highly Favored" or "Maximumly Graced" or Greatly Graced" etc and it correctly interprets the literal text.

    Why doesn't the official Latin Text of the CCC therefore interpret the original Italian speech?

  30. I’m not saying the Latin translation doesn’t faithfully render the original Italian, it may well do, but the only way we’ll find out is by assessing it against the Italian source text. That’s not what we’re doing when we pore over the grammar and semantics of the Latin to see how it might translate into English; then we’re treating the Latin as the source material for the English, when it is no less a translation than the English itself, or any of the other translations of the revision; and the adequacy of all of these needs to be assessed against the original Italian. (That’s why the Holy See Press Office specifies that Italian is the source language.) Calling the Latin the ‘official’ text doesn’t change any of this, it just clouds its status as a translation, that has no more bearing on the English translation than any of the other translations; since like all of them, it doesn’t exist without the Italian.

  31. Sergius, why cannot the Pope say "well, I said these words in Italian originally, but I would prefer that people rely on the Latin as definitive instead of the Italian, because I find the Italian is insufficiently clear"?

    If that's what he intended, it might be better if he didn't cite the Italian as the source, but that would present problems too, so it's not like he HAS to do it that way.

  32. The Pope is strongly against Capital punishment like his two predecessors. So I suspect he is allowing the preception that Church doctrine now mandates it's immoral to flurish in order to obtain the end of getting it banned.

    This Holy Father is not going to clear any of this up soon. We need to wait for Pope Francis II or John Paul III or Paul VII or Pius XIII or Benedict XVII or Pope Francis Benedict or Pope Benedict Francis to clear this up.

    PS Did I leave out any possible names? Oh yeh Pope Leo XIV.


  33. I have no doubt the Pope is strongly against Capital punishment; but as to his ‘allowing the perception that Church doctrine now mandates it’s immoral’, my contention has been precisely that this perception is tied, for us English speakers, to deficiencies in the English translation of the (original Italian) rescript. (See my first post.)

    As for any successor Popes ‘clearing up’ the issue – the issue in what language? In the Italian source language? There is no such issue that I have been able to glean (again, I would suggest for the reasons I pointed to in my first post); the issue in any of the other translated languages? Not our problem, the only one that concerns us is English.

    One way we’ll never have the issue resolved, or anything else this or any other pope ever says or writes about, is if we don’t come to grips with the fact that translation issues cannot by definition be addressed without reference to source textual material (when we have it, and we do) – whatever language it’s in. And if that language happens one day to be English, the problem will be everybody else’s.

    Unless of course we adopt some deconstructionist view of translation, whereby there is no fixed meaning within languages, let alone between them. That’s the Pandora’s Box we’re already opening when we arbitrarily treat the Latin translation as the source text, since we’re implying that the original Italian doesn’t matter.

  34. the issue in any of the other translated languages? Not our problem, the only one that concerns us is English.

    Well, not if we go out and learn Latin, for example. It's not like we ourselves cannot learn some Latin (or Italian) and compare those versions with English, and work out translation "issues" with respect to all three together.

    That’s the Pandora’s Box we’re already opening when we arbitrarily treat the Latin translation as the source text, since we’re implying that the original Italian doesn’t matter.

    There is a difference between saying "the original Italian doesn't matter" and "the Latin version resolves the meaning when the Italian is ambiguous." The latter does not mean that the Italian doesn't matter, only that it is not decisive if the Italian is ambiguous and the Latin is not. (I.E. if the Italian is not decisive in its own right, the Latin can take over that function.)

  35. We need to wait for Pope Francis II

    Heaven forfend! That's not going to clear up anything.

    or Paul VII

    Oh, please, no. Paul VI had about 14 years to deal with the problems, and he spend most of it dithering and allowing others to run things their way instead of taking control like he should have. Please, not another of those.

    or Pope Francis Benedict or Pope Benedict Francis to clear this up.

    The mind boggles. He would probably resign, and then claim "hey, I was just kidding, you know I am careless, right?"

  36. Dr. Feser, first of all thank you for introducing me to thomistic philosophy. As a catholic law student from the Netherlands the ideas of St.Thomas have already proven invaluable in my day to day life.

    I have read a couple of takes on the philosophy of punishment including thomistic ones and i am currently in the proces of reading 'by man shall his blood be shed'. I am still struggling to combine the obvious statement that retribution is the justification and ultimate end of punishment. It is even more evident to me that ''punishment'' without an element of retribution is nothing but terror and thus cannot be called punishment in the first place. However, many scholars attribute to Aquinas the idea that, even though retribution is the foundation and justification of punishment, human authorities should primarily focus on the medicinal functions of punishment even when this means that the authority has to settle for ''imperfect retribution'' when this would be better for society. By these scholars Thomas is often quoted saying ‘’A lesser fault is [sometimes] punished with a graver punishment … in order that a great danger be avoided.’’ (ST II-II 67.4) Moreover on page 57 you seem to affirm that Thomas asserted that in some cases we can abstain from inflicting the death penalty even though the criminal deserves it given that according to st.Thomas ''the punishments of this life are more of a medicinal character'' .

    I struggle to envision how human authorities should punish with regard to the two functions and their supposed hierarchy(purely looking at human purposes that is). A couple questions arise:

    1.. Suppose a case in which we have two possible punishments called A and B. Both are evenly retributive but punishment B is more medicinal than punishment A. Does society have a positive obligation to choose punishment B?

    2. Suppose we have again a case in which two punishments are possible, A and B. A is slightly more retributive than B however, B will be much more medicinal for the criminal and society as a whole. Does society have a positive obligation to choose punishment B? And would your answer on this change if A is not only devoid of medicinal functions but actually disturbs the peace and safety of society thereby doing the opposite of healing.

    Assuming that it is true that human authorities must prioritize medicinal over retributive aims, while obviously never completely disregarding retribution lest they commit travesties of justice for medicinal goals, what constitutes the minimal amount of retribution that has to be present? To what extent can we diverge from retribution in order to choose the ‘more medicinal’ punishment. If we are to give priority to the medicinal function, then how far can we venture from retribution in doing so?

    Excuse me for the long message, i would appreciate it a lot if you would take the time to answer my questions.